December 29, 2017

In 2011, 30% of America’s white evangelicals said unethical private behaviour was no bar to a politician fulfilling their public duties. By 2016 that number had rocketed by 42% to 72%.
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We used to call it “the character issue,” and it was deployed by conservatives against liberals–as when George H W Bush, Bob Dole, and their allies suggested that Bill Clinton’s character disqualified him for the Oval Office. Conservatives lost that battle in a rout. Liberals posited a sharp distinction between private character and public affairs, and most Americans sided with them.

Over the last two years, we have revisited this political history mostly to examine the hypocrisy, or at least the evolution, of the Right. According to polls, conservative evangelical Christians have swiftly abandoned the conviction that “personal immorality” has any bearing on fitness for office.

Yet the character issue is nonetheless back. The most widespread and deepest criticism of President Trump does not concern the tax bill he signed, the Supreme Court justice he nominated, or even his immigration views. It concerns his character: his boorishness, his alleged mistreatment of women, his dishonesty, his impulsiveness. His personal traits are the main reason the public is giving him failing grades even in a time of reasonably solid economic growth.

That story isn’t being neglected, of course; it’s all around us. But what hasn’t been discussed as much is this: The character issue is back – but this time it’s being deployed by liberals. And with public support.

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Introduction to this Under-reported series.

Summary guide to all under-reported articles in this series.

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